ANDALUCIA, Spain — It’s the only conclusion really. Nothing else makes any sense. None of it. So forget all the pre-Solheim Cup talk of analytics, statistics and gut-feelings, this non-playing captaincy lark is nothing more than a complete lottery when it comes to pairings and such. What often appears completely logical and well thought out can, from nowhere, blow up in the face of even the most well-researched skipper. Then again, decisions made out of desperation and appearing to make no sense whatsoever can turn out to be genius level notions worthy of that Einstein fellow.
Welcome to Spain, to Finca Cortesin and the 18th contest between the best women professionals from Europe and the United States. With just over 28 percent of the 28 games completed, maybe the only thing we know for sure is that the sides are, as many suspected, closely matched. Even better, after a more than shaky start by the Europeans, the standard of golf reached something of a crescendo toward the climax of some epic four-ball encounters.
There was a hole-in-one from Emily Kristine Pedersen, only the second ace in Solheim history (following Anna Nordqvist in 2013). There were near eagles on par 3s by what seemed like half a dozen other players. Gemma Dryburgh chipped in at the 16th. Leona Maguire holed out a pitch at the last, just before Lexi Thompson perpetrated a never-to-be-forgotten shank from what she called “an impossible lie,” then almost chipped in herself. Jennifer Kupcho lipped out a pitch to the same flag minutes later. And Allisen Corpuz made a clutch 20-footer from the fringe there too, only to be followed in from half that distance by Maja Stark. Truly, it was all happening, three of the four afternoon matches going all the way to the 18th green.
So it is that at the conclusion of a first day that provided an almost constant stream of unpredictably crazy outcomes, the visiting Americans hold a two-point edge, 5-3. Which sounds more than satisfactory until you realize the visitors were 4-0 up at lunch, sweeping the opening morning foursomes for the first time in Solheim history before failing to win any of the four afternoon four-balls. U.S. captain Stacy Lewis wasn’t admitting to any disappointment publicly, but she was surely expecting to sit down to a more satisfying dinner given the startling start her players enjoyed.
“The way the morning went was somewhat unexpected, but great. And the level of golf this afternoon was really good,” Lewis said. “Half-points can be really important come Sunday. So the two halves were huge for us. Amongst everything else we saw out there, we all learned why and how Allisen won the U.S. Open. But there are so many unknown variables. To win four from four takes some good bounces. And this afternoon they fought like crazy. The matches were close all day long. It could have been 6-2 but this was a really good day for us.”
Still, if there is one thing to take away from day one it is the contrasting and almost equally successful approaches of the two captains. “Follow the numbers” is clearly not a bad motto if you are analytic driven like Lewis. But “follow your heart and instincts” ultimately worked out well enough for European captain, Suzann Pettersen, too. In the end, it was a day for “anything goes.”
“They have trusted in all my crazy talk of stats and just all my ideas, and they believed in me,” said Lewis at lunch time. “That’s why I just told them when they got done, ‘thank you for believing in me. There was second guessing outside of this team room, I can tell you that much. I think the way the girls have bought into the process is what you saw today. You’ve seen the proof of that. They believed in me and then they went and played some unbelievable golf.”
At that stage pointed questions were already being asked of Pettersen’s apparent disdain for the sort of analysis just about every team captain is employing these days. Why, for example, has Caroline Hedwall, one of the European captain’s wild-card picks, not been seen on the course with her clubs? You pick a player, then you don’t play her?
That didn’t appear to add up.
But in the end Pettersen’s individual version of mathematical equations began to make more sense. And, to be fair to the Norwegian, the abject display by her form horse, Charley Hull, was underlined when the Englishwoman was omitted from the afternoon four-balls after what Pettersen called a “tough match containing ugly numbers” in the morning. That was one handicap the European skipper could have done without following the American’s almost constant morning onslaught.
The absence of Hull only added to Pettersen’s problems by setting off a chain reaction through the previously agreed European pairings. Hull and Hall was part of the plan, but that became Hall and Maguire, who was supposed to play with Celine Boutier, which perhaps goes some way to shedding light on the Evian Championship winner’s otherwise inexplicable exclusion. Disturbing a third partnership was clearly a step too far for the Old World captain.
“You have to react to results,” said the European captain. “I felt I responded well. There were some late changes but it worked out okay. It was such a tough start. We didn’t play that badly, although we gave away some easy holes early. I’m immensely proud of the way we fought back. It’s not easy to be down 0-4. So it is hats off to all my players for the way they showed such character. The golf in the afternoon was unbelievable. We’re right back in it. We kept the energy going in the crowd, which is what we will need to do again tomorrow.”
Back on the other side of the aisle, a notably bright light for Lewis was the play of Thompson, never mind that socket on the last. In selecting the most experienced and out-of-form member of her team to hit the opening tee shot, Lewis was, ironically, following a hunch. Widely questioned by many observers, Thompson performed with some distinction, doing more than enough to justify her inclusion in both series of matches.
Before lunch, the 28-year-old veteran of five previous Solheim Cups combined with Megan Khang to see off Linn Grant and Stark in the foursomes, then teamed with Vu to lose on the final green to the formidable pair of Maguire and Hall in the afternoon four-balls.
“I just had a feeling yesterday,” said Lewis. “Lexi wasn’t in the lineup I’ve had for a couple weeks. But the way the last four days have gone, just the way she seemed mentally, I had a good feeling about it.”
Lewis was also true to her pre-match promise to get all 12 of her players on the course by the end of day one. Again in contrast, the reason behind Pettersen’s hesitancy to make a similar vow became clear when Hedwall was deemed surplus to requirements prior to both of the first day series.
And so it is on to tomorrow. Whatever next? Anything, on this evidence, is possible.
SATURDAY FOURSOME PAIRINGS
Lilia Vu and Jennifer Kupcho v Emily Pedersen and Carlota Ciganda
Lexi Thompson and Megan Khang v Anna Nordqvist and Leona Maguire
Nelly Korda and Allisen Corpuz v Georgia Hall and Celine Boutier
Danielle Kang and Andrea Lee v Maja Stark and Linn Grant